Water Polo Player Dies in Tragic Accident

By Bruce Wigo,
Executive Director, USA Water Polo

ON Wednesday morning, January 16th, the body of Jennifer Macarandan, a 17-year-old Salinas (CA) High School Junior and member of USA Water Polo, was discovered drowned, under the thermal blanket of the Hartnell College pool, as swimmers prepared for 5:30 a.m. practice. She apparently had been one of more than two dozen students who took part in a water polo practice there Tuesday night.

Because most of us are very comfortable in the water, it is easy to forget, even after reading about tragedies like this one, just how dangerous the aquatic environment can be. It could never happen at your pool, right?

No one ever thinks something like could happen. I didn't until my son, a two-time Olympian and incredible aquatic athlete nearly drowned in my backyard pool a few years ago. That incident demonstrated to me that no matter what precautions you may take, no matter how prudent and cautious you may be, fatal or near fatal accidents can happen even under the most watchful eye and when you least expect them to happen.

We don't know all the facts surrounding the Jennifer Macarandan tragedy, and we may never find out exactly what caused her death or whether it could have been prevented.

Here is what we do know. The Tuesday night practice was a sports-activity class that Hartnell College created specifically for high school water polo students. The head instructor and coach of Salinas High School is Gary Figueroa, a silver medalist on the 1984 USA Olympic Water Polo Team.

The weather for Tuesday's practice was typically chilly, with a little steam coming off the water. As was the usual practice, the thermal blanket was left on the part of the pool that the water polo team wasn't using to retain heat. Coaches and players remember Jennifer being present at the start of practice.

"We're not able to say if she drowned and then floated up underneath the tarp or if she was underneath there swimming around for some reason and got trapped. There's no way of telling that," said Lt. Henry Yoneyama, from the Salinas Police Department.

Investigators said there were no apparent signs of struggle or fighting that would indicate Jennifer got trapped underneath the tarp alive. They suspect that after practice the tarp was pulled back over the entire pool with Jennifer's body underneath it.

While there do not appear to be any grounds to allege negligence on the part of the coaches or the school, that does not mean the issue will not arise at some future date. Fortunately, coach Figueroa registered himself, his club and players, including Jennifer, with USA Water Polo in November.

Therefore, USA Water Polo's liability policy will stand behind the coach, club and facility, and the Accidental Death Benefits will be paid to Jennifer's family. While this may appear to be a small consolation, imagine the potential consequences if Coach Figueroa had not been a diligent administrator and insisted on registering his team before the start of the new year.

As a result of this incident: USA Water Polo highly recommends the following:

1. Coaches should totally remove all tarps and pool coverings from the entire pool during practice.

2. Coaches should warn all athletes about the potential dangers of swimming under tarps, bulkheads, etc., and prohibit all athletes from doing so.